An ode to the delicatessen
Katz's Delicatessen. (Stephen Reiss)
David Sax is a man on a mission — to get people excited about Jewish delis again.
These temples of comfort food have become an endangered species — in New York City, they’ve declined from 1,550 deli stores in 1931 to just under two dozen today.
For Sax, the fate of delis is a deeply personal issue. The freelance writer, 30, who grew up in Toronto, opens his new book “Save the Deli” with a story that has shaped his life: His grandfather, just released from the hospital, died after chowing down on a smoked-meat sandwich.
The problem facing delis has little to do with healthier eating habits: “This is an immigrant food of an immigrant group that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Sax, whose book will be released Oct. 19. “The last line of Jewish countermen were emigrants from the Soviet Union in the ‘80s.”
And then, of course, tough economics make it difficult for a kosher deli to survive. “You take already slim margins and tack on a higher cost of food, kosher supervision, and closure every holiday, Saturday and every Friday afternoon at a certain time,” he said.
Ultimately, it’s hard for delis — kosher or not — to make money off their most popular items: the sandwiches. Perhaps they’re generous to a fault. “You might make a 10-15 percent profit, because the meat is so expensive and there’s so much of it,” she said.
And shrinking the sandwiches would be a shanda. “It has to be a big sandwich,” Sax said adamently. “The sandwiches got big cause this was the food of poor immigrants. To have a full stomach was the greatest thing,” he said.
In New York, the sandwiches are biggest of all — weighing in at 12 ounces to a pound of meat, Sax said. Other cities such as Montreal can be as measly as 5-6 ounces, Sax said.
In the 1970s and 1980s the Stage and Carnegie delis kept the big sandwich trend afloat, competing with one another for the largest sandwich and turning delis into tourist destinations.
While New York remains the historic capital of delis, Sax said it’s no longer the only relevant deli city. “In L.A., people in the film business hold meetings in the deli. In New York you don’t have the head of Goldman Sachs taking his meeting to a deli. But Spielberg and Katzenberg do that,” he said.
But lest you think New York has lost all of its decent delis, we followed Sax on a tour of three New York deli gems on a recent fall afternoon, and found plenty to eat.
Katz’s, 205 E. Houston Street
If you’re going to try one thing at Katz’s, Sax said it should be the pastrami. The key is that every sandwich is hand-sliced. “If you use a machine, softer meat breaks apart. When you hand-slice it, you can steam the meat longer, and it’s more tender,” he said.
“The atmosphere here is so conducive to deli, too,” Sax said. “It’s bright, it’s hectic and you’re crammed into people sitting next to you.”
Gottlieb’s, 352 Roebling St., Brooklyn
Set in the Satmar Hasidic community, this Glatt Kosher Hungarian spot is what Sax described as “a dark horse.” Here your best bets are “haimish,” or homemade items such as cholent (a meat and bean stew), kugels (a potato or noodle casserole) and knishes.
The crowd on a recent Thursday, consisted of neighborhood Hasidim, police officers and everyone in between, all being served by a friendly, longtime waiter named Irwin, or Yitzchak.
Second Avenue Deli, 162 E. 33rd St.
“I think in terms of delicatessen food, if you’re going to pick one place in particular in Manhattan that does all the things really well, the Second Avenue Deli is that place,” said Sax.
Here, the attraction is the soups (Matzo ball and mushroom barley particularly), the pastrami and corned beef, the chopped liver, gefilte fish and the gribenes (fried chicken skins).
Owner Jack Lebewohl said a second location on the Upper East Side, complete with a second floor for parties, will open at East 75th Street and First Avenue in September 2010.